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Sabotage group repelled in Belgorod, nukes unmoved in Grayvoron, Russians vulnerable in Bakhmut. What happened on the front line on May 23?

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In today's summary:

  • The US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) noted that the Russian army is vulnerable in Bakhmut;
  • Visual confirmation of the Ukrainian military abandoning its lines of defense in Bakhmut has emerged online;
  • “DPR” head Denis Pushilin intends to liberate New York (a small village in Donbas);
  • A “counter-terrorist operation” has been cancelled in the Belgorod region – local authorities claim to have neutralized a Ukrainian sabotage group;
  • Nuclear safety expert Pavel Podvig provides commentary on a tactical nuclear weapon (TNW) depot near Grayvoron in the Belgorod region;
  • The US has said it “does not encourage” Ukrainian attacks on internationally recognized Russian territory;
  • The Netherlands may become the first country to transfer F-16 fighter jets to Kyiv;
  • The US has accused the Wagner Private Military Company of an attempt to organize a channel for arms and equipment supplies through the West African country of Mali.

The front line

Experts are assessing the situation in Bakhmut after the Russian offensive in the area came to a close. The US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) wrote that the Russians are now in a vulnerable position as their “offensive effort in the area has likely culminated, granting Ukrainian forces the opportunity to launch further counterattacks on Bakhmut’s already-weakened flanks.”

The announced withdrawal of the Wagner PMC units “will also likely result in the Russian MoD [Ministry of Defense] manning defensive lines with poorly trained and provisioned conventional units” – similar to those that have previously retreated on the flanks to the north and south of the city earlier in May.

These vulnerabilities, however, is largely ignored in Russian information space, according to the ISW. Russian propaganda and “war correspondents” are barely talking about them, choosing instead to focus on victory celebrations and award ceremonies.

The New York Times published video footage of Bakhmut, taken from a drone a few days ago, showing burned and destroyed buildings.

Denis Pushilin, the leader of the so-called “DPR,” also published a video from Bakhmut, saying. that the city will bear the Soviet name of Artemovsk after it passes under Russian control. Pushilin also said that the village of New York in the Bakhmut district will be renamed Novgorodskoye. “We have yet to liberate New York, it will also cease to be New York,” Pushilin promised.

New York is notably the historical name of the settlement, which survived until the beginning of the Cold War, and was reinstated in 2021 following a campaign by local activists. Pushilin also added that settlements in the “DPR” have been reverting back to their “historical” names as of May 11, 2014 (the date of the “republic’s” proclamation of “independence”), meaning Soledar is unlikely to be renamed Karl-Libknekhtovsk (after the German socialist Karl Liebknekht) – the cumbersome Soviet name was dropped in 1991, before Ukraine proclaimed independence.

A Telegram channel linked to the RIA FAN agency (affiliated with Yevgeny Prigozhin's businesses) also published footage from Bakhmut, taken in the vicinity of the former monument to the MiG-17 aircraft – the last area of the city that remained in the hands of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). According to the correspondent, he did not find any Ukrainian soldiers at the location.

Shelling and sabotage

As of the morning of May 23, according to the governor of Belgorod region Vyacheslav Gladkov, Russian troops continued “sweeping the territory” of the Grayvoron district, where the day before a Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group [declared as units of the Russian Volunteer Corps (“Rossiskiy Dobrovolchesky Korpus”, or RDK) and the Freedom of Russia Legion (“Legion Svoboda Rossii”, or LSR), which are fighting on the Ukrainian side – The Insider] had entered. By mid-afternoon, the “sweep” appeared to be complete, and Gladkov reported that the counter-terrorist operation (CTO) regime in the area had been lifted.

Russia’s Investigative Committee opened a criminal case on charges of “terrorist attack,” “attempted murder,” “deliberate destruction of property,” and “illegal trafficking in weapons and explosives.” The agency reported that residential and administrative buildings, as well as civilian infrastructure were hit by mortar and artillery fire, and several civilians were wounded.

The VChK-OGPU Telegram channel published a list of those wounded in the Belgorod region as of last night:

Military:

Sergey B., born in 1995, military base 3526, penetrating wounds to the abdomen, chest and arm;

Andrey E., born 1981, military base 25594, shrapnel wounds to temple, neck, head and forearm;

Alan K., born in 2001 military base unknown, contusion;

Kirill A., born in 2002, bruise;

Aslan K., born in 2003, military base unknown, concussion, traumatic brain injury, amnesia;

Zaur O., born in 2002, military base unknown, contusion;

Anatoly Sh., born in 1992, military base 25623, shrapnel wounds to the abdomen and forearm;

Ivan F., born in 2004, military base, shrapnel wound to the temple, fracture of the jaw.

Civilians:

Alesya Sh., born 1988, gunshot wounds to the abdomen and thigh

Zoya K., born 1950, shrapnel wounds of the hip, abdomen and forearm

Galina D., born 1970, gunshot wounds to the neck

Nikolay V., born 1966, shrapnel wound of the shoulder

Konstantin K., born 1963, shrapnel wounds to the hip and abdomen

Nikolay S., born1966, shrapnel wound to the arm

Vitaliy P., born 1973, shrapnel wound to the lower leg

Anatoly B., born 1975, with shrapnel wounds to the abdomen, buttocks and hips.

The ISW published a map and outlined the route likely taken by the sabotage group – according to the Institute, it crossed the border near Kozinka in the Grayvoron district of the Belgorod region.

Russian sources claimed that the group then captured the settlements of Glotovo and Gora-Podol (3 km and 5 km from the border respectively), but ISW analysts found no geolocated confirmation that the RDK or LSR had actually reached these settlements.

Geolocated footage published on May 22 does confirm that RDK fighters struck a border post near Kozinka before crossing the border.

Russian pro-war channels estimated the strength of the group that broke through the border at one combined motorized infantry battalion [which is questionable, given that the footage from the territory of the Belgorod region shows no more than 10 vehicles, which corresponds to a company – The Insider] with an attached tank platoon [although it appears that the tanks took part only in the storming of the border post and did not go further into Russian territory – The Insider]. The Russian Defense Ministry announced that the Ukrainian saboteurs were “surrounded and defeated.” According to the ministry, the remnants of the group were pushed back from the Belgorod region into the territory of Ukraine, and “over 70 terrorists, four armored fighting vehicles and five pickup trucks were destroyed.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense also released a video of strikes against the Ukrainian group.

According to the Fighterbomber Telegram channel, which is affiliated with the Russian Air Force, the Russian side employed army and operational-tactical aviation, while the soldiers of the Ukrainian-backed group had MANPADS and Avenger air defense systems at their disposal. The channel's author also hinted that one Russian aircraft was lost in combat, but did not provide any additional details.

The Ukraine-backed group appears to have abandoned and left behind an International MaxxPro armored vehicle, as well as several grenade launchers and small arms.

Financial Times correspondent Christopher Miller noted that he spoke with the head of the operation, and he was in a “pretty good mood,” which would be unusual if he had just lost 70 fighters.

The Russian Defense Ministry, meanwhile, published a video of the “liquidation of a Ukrainian sabotage group” in the Belgorod region. The footage, published by the MoD-controlled TV channel Zvezda, showed damaged military equipment and a burnt-out pickup truck with the inscription “For Bakhmut” (“Za Bakhmut”). VGTRK “military correspondent” Yevgeny Poddubny posted a video with the bodies of the fighters from the Ukrainian group on his Telegram channel. The footage depicts significantly fewer than 70 bodies.

The Russian Defense Ministry's report did not mention any casualties on the Russian side. Some pro-war channels reported on the killed and wounded from Russia’s territorial defense units. Sources cited by VGTRK's “war correspondent” Alexander Sladkov reported the same information.

The Ukraine-backed group may also have captured two armored personnel carriers – one BTR-82A and one BTR-80 – and taken at least one prisoner (according to the Telegram channel Dva Mayora, a Russian conscript manning a border checkpoint was taken prisoner).

Throughout the day, there were reports of attempts of new breakthroughs from the Ukrainian border in the area of Shchetinovka and Bogun-Gorodok. Belgorod Governor Gladkov denied the information.

If the goal of the breakthrough was to divert Russian forces from other sections, it may have been accomplished. A Novaya Gazeta Europe source reported that after the “intrusion of an AFU sabotage and reconnaissance group,” forces of motorized riflemen (about 3,200 servicemen and 20 vehicles) and Army special forces (about 1,000 servicemen and 40 vehicles) were deployed to the region. Employees of the Central Security Service of the FSB have also been sent to the region.

As mentioned in our previous reports, military base 25624, located in the vicinity of Grayvoron contains “Object 1150” (also known as Belgorod-22), which is under the jurisdiction of the 12th Main Directorate of Russia’s Ministry of Defense responsible for the storage of tactical nuclear weapons. The pro-Russian Telegram channel Rybar wrote that nuclear weapons have long been absent at the location, but Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman Andrei Yusov claimed that the Russians were urgently removing nuclear warheads from the area.

Pavel Podvig, a nuclear security expert at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, wrote that he is skeptical of reports of the weapons being transported, as it would be a visible operation that would be easily picked up by Western intelligence agencies monitoring Russian nuclear weapons – the operation would have to involve a convoy of trucks with multiple guards, as well as other personnel and equipment.

Podvig pointed out that Belgorod-22 is a so-called “national-level” storage facility that is some distance from the “base-level” storage facilities serving operational units. It has six large bunkers, meaning at least a dozen items of “special ammunition” can be stored there.

But it cannot be reliably confirmed if the nuclear weapons are there or not, although the local security unit conducted a drill at the location at least as late as November 2022.

The question of why a Ukrainian group was able to breach the state border and the defensive lines erected there so easily was widely discussed on social media. The well-known pro-Russian Telegram channel Starshe Eddy (“Older than Edda”) offered the following explanation:

“Many people here have begun to mock Governor Gladkov and ask where is the defense line on which so much money has been spent? The defensive is there – everyone that’s been close to the border has seen it – the only thing is that the khohol [Russian derogatory term for Ukrainian – The Insider] drove along a well-marked road, not through the fields, and the road, naturally, is not dug up and mined. The enemy should be pounded [with artillery] and shot from tanks, artillery, small arms – at least in theory.”

Another well-known pro-Russian Telegram channel, ZAPISKI VETERANA (“Notes of a veteran”), outlined several serious complaints to Russian officials:

1. Why weren't the enemy's plans of attack uncovered at the initial stage of preparation of the operation?
2. Why weren't the movements of the enemy on the approach to the state border exposed and prevented?
3. Why did the border guards and the military have to withdraw from the first line of defence?
4. Why are there still civilians living in settlements that are within 1 kilometer of the border (actually the front line), because of which artillery and aviation could not fire on the enemy?
5. Why are people who want to defend their land still unarmed and in sham “territorial defense units” rather than in fighter units in the people's militias?

Meanwhile, the US has made it very clear to Kyiv that it does not encourage attacks outside Ukrainian borders, said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller, commenting on the situation in the Belgorod region:

“We have made it clear to the Ukrainians that we do not enable or encourage attacks outside Ukrainian borders. But I think it's important to remind everyone that, of course, it was Russia that started this war.”

Miller recalled that it is Russia that continues to attack Ukrainian civilians, shelling schools, hospitals and civilian infrastructure. “So, it is up to Ukraine to decide how it wants to conduct its military operations. But it is Russia that is the aggressor in this war,” he added.

According to preliminary information reported in Telegram channels, drones attacked regional law enforcement facilities on the night of May 23 in Belgorod. The local departments of the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB) were reportedly hit.

The channel Belgorod Molniya said that an explosion sounded in the city, followed by a column of smoke. Preobrazhenskaya Street, where the regional FSB office is located, was blocked. According to Telegram channel Sota, the explosion occurred in the building of the FSB office. Telegram channels VChK-OGPU and Rybar claimed that the Belgorod Interior Ministry building was attacked from a drone.

The “Edelweiss” plan – a call-up of all the region’s security forces – was activated in the neighboring Bryansk region on the morning of May 23. According to a report by Mash, Russian National Guard units would go on heightened alert in the region’s Sevsky, Suzemsky, Trubchevsky and Klimovsky districts. The Klimovsky district came under fire twice on May 22, according to Bryansk Governor Alexander Bogomaz. Shelling was also reported in a village in the region’s Starodubsky district.

A large fire broke out in the village of Dyatkovo in the Bryansk region, according to a report by the Telegram channel Shot. Clouds of black smoke were visible several kilometers away from the location of the blaze. According to preliminary reports, a warehouse on the territory of a former factory caught fire.

The village of Gordeevka in the Kursk region’s Korenevsky district was reported to have been shelled. Civilians were not injured, but electricity transmission lines were damaged. Close to 400 people in Gordeevka and the neighboring villages of Viktorovka and Troitskoye were left without power.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian General Staff reported that the country’s air defense forces had shot down four Shahed-type (aka Geran) kamikaze drones launched at Ukraine. The AFU Air Force later reported shooting down six Shaheds and four Merlin-VR reconnaissance drones on the night of May 23.

Losses

Russian sources circulated footage of a Lancet kamikaze drone strike on a camouflaged 5P85S launcher of the Ukrainian S-300PS SAM system.

The drone struck the container with the missile preparation and launch equipment, which is guaranteed to disable not only the launcher, but also other 5P85D launchers connected to the container.

Arms supplies

The US will begin training Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets and will work with its allies to transfer the fighters to Ukraine, said US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller. The Netherlands may become the first country to transfer the F-16s to Kyiv, according to a Politico report. High-ranking officials in the EU do not rule out that the Ukrainian military could receive the planes by fall this year.

According to Russian state-run news agency TASS, EU head diplomat Josep Borrell said that training of Ukrainian pilots on US F-16 fighter jets has already been launched in several countries.

The report was denied by the speaker of the Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Yurii Ihnat. According to Ihnat, preparations are underway, but the training has not yet begun. “There are advanced groups that have gone to countries that can provide us with sites for exercises. We’re studying how the process will go. The pilots themselves, as such, are not yet in those countries,” Ihnat said during a television broadcast.

Borrell also said that EU countries have already delivered 220,000 artillery shells and 1300 missiles to Ukraine within the framework of the plan agreed in March. He did not specify the calibers and types of these munitions.

In Germany, a trainload of Swedish armored Strf 9040C) infantry fighting vehicles and Bgbv 90 armored recovery vehicles was spotted moving towards the Czech Republic. The equipment is likely headed for Ukraine.

The US State Department believes that the Wagner PMC is trying to establish the purchase of weapons and their delivery through the West African country of Mali for use in the war against Ukraine. According to a Reuters report citing State Department spokesman Matthew Miller, the US has information that the mercenaries tried to buy weapons in a third country and send them through Mali, but there is no evidence that these purchases have been made so far.

Click here for The Insider's summary of the main events on the front line on May 22.

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